Finding clothes was difficult but not impossible for Susan Forbes. Even though there was no tall section to shop for clothes in high school, the 6-foot-3 brunette got by with shirts and jeans that ran long.

Finding cute shoes was another story.

"In school I felt like I had to buy the Clarks granny shoes or wear boy's skater shoes," says Forbes, a 28-year-old Concord volleyball coach who grew up in mountainous Lake Arrowhead. She has worn a size 12 shoe since her freshman year. "This is really sad, but I also wore flip-flops on snowy days. Nothing else fit."

A lot has changed for women who leave a larger footprint. In the past decade, retailers and manufacturers have stepped up their game to give women who wear a size 11 or bigger access to a variety of shoe styles.

No longer held back by clunky, masculine-looking options, they now can attend designer extended-size shoe events at Nordstrom or even customize sexy platforms up to size 15 on Shoesofprey.com. Experts say the options have increased because as a society, our feet are getting bigger.

While the industry has not conducted any formal surveys, the estimate among retailers is that the average woman's foot has grown more than one shoe size in the past 30 years, says Mark Denkler, a third-generation shoe retailer and chairman of the National Shoe Retailers Association.

"We like to say 8½ is the new 7," says Denkler, who attributes the growing feet to evolution ("people are just getting bigger") and the increase in obesity.

Even the assortments stores buy, called casepacks, used to come in size 5 to 10 but now it's 6 to 11, he says. Still, because stores cannot return what they don't sell, owners are not likely to purchase shoes at the far end of the range, let alone above it.

TallSwag fashion blogger Alicia Jay is a particularly vocal one. Jay, 31, has been a size 12 since she was a sophomore in high school. She found occasional dress shoes at Payless Shoe Source, which stocks up to size 13. Otherwise, she spent her teens and young adulthood in men's sneakers.

"Kids called me Big Foot," says Jay, who lives in Oakland and works in game operations for the Golden State Warriors. "A lot of people called me a freak." Today, at 6-foot-6, the aspiring model recommends Nordstrom Rack and Barefoot Tess for on-trend shoes, including this season's must-have booties, up to size 15.

According to the website, fashion-forward Baltimore 20-something Tess Williams launched Barefoot Tess in 2006 after salespeople told her the trendy kicks, including heels, that she wanted didn't come in her size. That's one of Jay's biggest pet peeves.

"I hate it when I go to a shoe store and ask what they have in my size and they bring me all flats," Jay says. "Just because I'm tall or wear a size 12 doesn't mean I can't rock a mean heel."

Cute, feminine shoes were so important to Barbara Thornton that she spent her first 45 years cramming her feet into shoes that were too small for her. "I have the toes to prove it," says Thornton, who wears an 11½. "I always thought if God made me anything bigger than a 10, he would've made shoes to fit me."

Fifteen years ago, Thornton, of Boston, launched Designershoes.com to give women up to a size 15 a variety of choices. Her site offers dozens of brands, including Moda and WNBA All-Star Aisha Jones' Takera, a collection of Italian-leather shoes that starts at 10½.

"I won't carry a shoe unless it goes to at least a size 12," she says.

Tall Swag Fashion blogger Alicia Jay is photographed with dozens of shoes size 12 in her apartment in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012.  Alicia
Tall Swag Fashion blogger Alicia Jay is photographed with dozens of shoes size 12 in her apartment in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012. Alicia is an aspiring model, she is 6'7'' tall and wears size 12. (Ray Chavez/Staff) (RAY CHAVEZ)

Nordstrom is equally devoted to the cause. The department store, which started as a shoe store in 1901, has forged exclusive partnerships with Sam Edelman, Vince Camuto, Michael by Michael Kors and other manufacturers to craft shoes in hard-to-find sizes.

"Whether a woman is a size 4 or 12, she wants the latest style," says Tacey Powers, Nordstrom's national merchandise manager for women's shoes. They customize their casepacks and twice a year, in April and October, hold exclusive extended-size shoe events. "We should be able to outfit her in a pump, a flat and a boot."

Nationally, Nordstrom's best-selling size is still a 7½, but sales of size of 11 and above increases every year, Powers says. "What has changed is that the size 11 customer is younger, like 18 or 22," she says. "We're seeing more need for width in our younger customers."

Length is the issue for Charlene Archibeque of Los Altos. Archibeque, 77, has been a size 12 since she was 15. "When I was growing up, I couldn't walk into a store and find shoes," she says. "If you wore my size, you had to tell your cobbler to make them for you."

These days, Archibeque, former director of choral activities at San Jose State, owns 100 shoes. But, she still has trouble finding stylish flats comfortable enough for her guest-conducting gigs, when she's often on her feet for three hours at a time.

"A lot of the shoes have round toes and come in boring colors," she says. "It'd be nice to have a pointed toe. Something fun or different."